Saturday, December 22, 2007

Still Point - The Centre Holds!

For this post, I will begin with some lines from the Tao Te Ching. Stanza 9 is worth quoting in full and runs thus:

Fill your bowl to the brim
And it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
And it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
And your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
And you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

There is much wisdom in the above quoted lines. We are peculiar creatures who are literally tormented by our infinite desires. Enough is not enough at all. The more we have, the more we want. The more we get, the more still we want. We are vice-ridden and desire-tormented. No wonder the Christian tradition talks about the seven deadly sins. Interpreted literally these sins brought in their eventual trail hellfire and damnation. Metaphorically, though, they plumb the depths of our seemingly unquenchable desires. Listed in Latin by both Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th Century AD and later (also in Latin) by Dante Alighieri in his epic poem The Divine Comedy the seven deadly sins are as follows: Luxuria (extravagance, later lust), Gula (gluttony), Avaritia (greed), Acedia (sloth), Ira (wrath), Invidia (envy), and Superbia (pride).

We are animals at base, of course, and we are pretty much instinctual creatures like our fellows of other species in the animal kingdom. Hence the sexual urge or desire is one of the strongest basic urges or instincts within us. Hence Lust, which is uncurbed by the mores of society or the rules and regulations of the Church, is deemed to be a deadly sin leading the believer to hellfire and damnation. Likewise with Gluttony. We cannot get enough of a good thing such as good food and wine – here we are prone to both drink and eat to excess. There, then follows Greed which would seem to be the very basis of Western economy. We cannot seem to get enough money. Then follow in quick succession the vices of Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride. Sloth is not just simple indolence or laziness – it’s more insidious still – it’s the base desire to do absolutely nothing at all. Of the others that are left, I feel that Wrath earns its pride of place to use a rather unfortunate pun, insofar that modern society seems to be shot through with sheer wanton anger which is wont to explode unpredictably anywhere and at any time on both the streets and in the homes of modern society.

The wisdom of the East (desires are seen as afflictions of the psyche which lead to suffering) as well as the wisdom of the West (unbridled desires are vices and deadly sins that lead to eternal punishment) understood this basic psychology at the heart of humankind. Both in their own ways sought to correct this instinctual or animalistic behaviour by various practices like prayer and confession (and other sacraments, sacramentals and devotions) in Roman Catholicism and by asceticism, prayer and meditation in the East. The former, unfortunately oftentimes concentrated too much on fear and even on brutal punishments and death in certain cases while the latter was more often than not gentler and more understanding of the human psyche. Is it any wonder that many contemporary psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists feel at home in Taoism and Buddhism and Eastern prayer and meditation techniques? The Christian tradition has too often been guilt-ridden and guilt-inducing in its methods of controlling its flock. In fact, quite often they saw/see leadership, not as their founder Jesus Christ would have wanted – that is, a shepherd who cares for his flock – but rather in terms of control and consequent punishment for breaking the rules.

The Tao, or rather understanding and accepting its power in our lives, will bring us beyound desires, beyond our cravings, beyond our clinging to things and even clinging to people in relationships, beyond all these lesser things to a more objective position where we see the interconnectedness of things, the deep unity or integrity of things beyond the disparity and the dis-integrity of the many. From the Still Point things hold together. To re-write Yeats, we find that indeed from this newly discovery vantage point “the centre does indeed hold.”

I will finish these musings with another line or two from the Tao Te Ching:

In stanza 11 we read the wonderful paradoxical words:

We join the spokes together in a wheel,
But it is the centre hole
That makes the wagon move.

Above I have appended a picture of our family grave in Roscrea - to bring as it were a realistic if cold perspective on all the above musings.

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